Human beings are unique in the scenario of life on Earth–that much is obvious. We are guided by awareness, and to implement our wishes, dreams, and inventions, the higher brain (chiefly the cerebral cortex) has evolved to extraordinary proportions. Although classical Darwinism is mindless, and staunchly defended as such by strict materialists, Homo sapiens is no longer caught in the clutches of natural selection. As we saw in the first post of this series, human society is very different from the state of nature. Chimpanzees don’t get their food at the grocery store, and we don’t get ours by fighting with rivals in the treetops.
So the real dilemma isn’t whether human evolution is guided by mind, because clearly it is. What remains puzzling is how much connection there is between our mind and our genes. There is no doubt that the roughly 23,000 genes you inherited from your parents remain the same throughout your lifetime. If the genetic blueprint was as fixed as an architect’s plans, there would be no mind-gene connection. You would be the puppet of DNA, mechanically carrying out whatever actions are programmed into the 3 billion base pairs that constitute the human genome.
To defenders of strict Darwinism, the difference between instinct, which controls animal behavior, and mind, which gives freedom of choice, is lost. But no one who isn’t harping on an agenda could claim that a Mozart symphony or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was created by instinct. The range of the human mind is vast and creative. But as we create the complex human world, are our genes listening? If so, are they cooperating in our creative enterprises? Continue reading →
Everyone has had a meaningful coincidence happen to them–the classic example is thinking of someone’s name and the next minute that person telephones, or seeing an unusual word in your mind’s eye and then running across that word the next time you open a book. It’s spooky that the outside world can be synchronized with our inner world, yet the bigger question is about reality itself. Synchronicity, the common term for meaningful coincidences, doesn’t tend to change anyone’s life–but it could.
Instead of passing off such experiences as incidental, what if synchronicity is telling us something crucial about reality, linking the inner and outer worlds because in the long run, they are completely unified? If inner=outer, a tremendous shift in the Western materialistic worldview would follow. Let’s see how far the trail of clues takes us. Continue reading →
There’s always a sense of crisis in the air generated by whatever bad news is making the headlines. At the moment, the greatest alarm is being stirred by terrorism and the spread of Islamic extremism. Yet at a deeper level, our anxiety centers on something much deeper, the possibility that the human experiment has reached a dead end. A set of enormous problems face us, from climate change and overpopulation to epidemic disease and global water shortages, that test the limits of human nature.
The terrible possibility of moving backward in our evolution as a species seems possible to many observers. We occupy a unique place in Earth’s evolutionary history, being the only creatures threatened not by natural selection but by our mindset. Pessimists point to climate change as a stark example. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of global warming, no solution is being acted upon quickly enough. The American public has become numbed by issue fatigue. Deniers have political clout, and ordinary citizens feel helpless to the point that many feel doomed. We continually prefer to either ignore the problem or push it away as the consumer lifestyle adds more and more to the underlying problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Continue reading →
Is evolution a complex process that we have nothing to do with, or is there any way we can actually influence our own evolution? In this episode of “Ask Deepak” on The Chopra Well, Deepak explores how can we influence human evolution as well as the evolution of the cosmos.
Our feelings, thoughts, perceptions, cognition, internal mental activity, and behavior changes in every moment. The neural architecture of our brain responds to both internal and external reactions which we create through our own choices. Thus, as we think, feel and emote – we affect the expression of our genes and expression of genes in others. Your genes are activated right now watching this video, and we are influencing each other, and thus, in a sense, influencing evolution.
Last week was a big one for the human family tree — it grew by a million years. With considerable splash the media announced that our oldest ancestor was Ardi, short for Ardipithecus ramidus, an upright walking hominid who lived 4.4 million years ago. A female skeleton was put on display that demotes Lucy, another female skeleton that became famous as the oldest hominid, dating from only 3.2 million years.
As usual when such stories about evolution reach the front page, religious believers are quieted. Unless you have absolute faith in Genesis, there is irrefutable evidence that physical life developed by stages. Ardi wasn’t exactly a newcomer. The first remains, in the form of a single molar, had been found in Ethiopia in 1992, and for seventeen years teams of specialists determined a host of facts about this new species. For example, walking upright had already been developed four million years ago, along with tree-climbing, and an omnivorous appetite for almost any kind of food, plant or animal.
Indirectly creationists were handed a sliver of a concession. Ardi isn’t apelike. We aren’t descended from monkeys, once again laying to rest the most shocking theory that used to circulate in common parlance. By walking upright over four million years ago, the earliest hominids were already on an evolutionary track separate from even chimps and gorillas, our nearest genetic cousins, who locomote with a different kind of gait known as knuckle-walking.
Yet it’s what we don’t know about our ancestors that’s the most thrilling. Nothing in the fossil record, no matter how many dozen specialists study it, explains the trait that makes us human. It’s not walking upright or learning to mate for life (some anthropologists speculate that this was already developing with Ardi and Lucy). It’s not the opposable thumb and forefinger, which have long been touted as the one great advantage we have over all other primates.
The dominant trait that makes us human is our self-consciousness, which will never be viewed in the fossil record, because it’s invisible. Being self-conscious, human beings became curious about ourselves and where we came from. That’s why we study chimps but they don’t study us. Other primates have had the same millions of years to become self-conscious. Somehow it never caught on beyond a certain basic level, while we on the other hand grew more self-conscious over time. When the Buddha looked inward and Christ preached a gospel of love, those were evolutionary steps in human awareness.
Evolution has reached the point where there’s no more physical development left for us. Escaping the rule of survival of the fittest — that no longer applies to a species that takes care of its weak and sick — human beings entered the era of survival of the wisest. Survival of the wisest means using our consciousness in the highest way possible, for peace, shared resources, the eradication of disease, and increased happiness.
In terms of self-consciousness, the next great leap won’t be in any of these areas, however. It will come when we figure out how brain cells work. Neuroscientists, like their colleagues in anthropology, keep staring at what’s visible when the secrets of the brain are clearly invisible. Where is memory imprinted in a neuron? What is the self, which appears to have no identifiable location in the brain? How do vibrating molecules striking the eardrum turn into words that convey meaning? When photons stimulate cells on the surface of the retina, how do mere electrical impulses in the visual cortex create the world we see?
Inside the brain there are no sounds or sights. When you hear music, your brain remains completely silent. When you gaze at a sunset, your brain remains totally dark. The study of cells and tissues, like the study of fossils, offers clues about the mystery of consciousness, yet a great divide has yet to be crossed. We need a Darwin of consciousness, a seminal mind who grasps the mind itself. Only then will Ardi and Lucy make sense. Because right now they don’t. The creationists are defending a rear-guard position that will never be true. At the same time, so are the materialists they oppose. Consciousness is the creative force we have yet to unravel. It creates sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Which means that the real thrills are yet to come, when we look inward to discover the most mind-bending thing of all: Consciousness is the basic building block of life and the prime mover of the universe.